So far as social policy is concerned, I doubt that evidence alone will ever swing policy one way or the other, though the claim is that it should, perhaps that it does.
Belief in ‘evidence-based’ policy making has similarities with belief in myth. Myths, by definition, are not expressions of literal truths. Rather, they provide us with stories of origin, tales of titanic battles, of victor over vanquished, that are used to express and justify the values and beliefs now held, along with the practices said to flow from them. In that sense, myths are foundational; they provide the basis for justifying current decisions.
Our relationship with myth, then, is a combination of both a backward and a forward look. Its backward glance is tinged with a sort of nostalgia, a yearning for that mythical time when matters were clear. When there was black and there was white. Where one had to win. There was no grey.
And so, in the attempt to affect this messy, uncertain, unpredictable world of human comings and goings, a sort of nostalgia takes hold. In our case, a nostalgia for the sort of certainties and predictable patterns that the natural sciences can reveal. Sure the natural sciences proceed in part by way of an avid enthusiasm for doubt, for testing and often overturning existing assumptions. Nevertheless, they are quite hot on identifying how cause ‘x’ prompt effect ‘y’. Whereas in our messy human world, over millennia, individuals and societies remain undecided on matters as fundamental as child rearing. Is it, for example, better for future ‘outcomes’ to ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ or to affect a more liberal, permissive stance in child-rearing practice? It has not been, nor is it, nor will it be the evidence that decides the matter. The type of question posed here is connected by superhighway to fundamental questions about the nature of childhood, the purpose of life and so forth. There will be no final settlement of the question. Continue reading